Picaroons, Parades, and Tripe – The JéMBE Festival 2017 | Monte Compatri, Italy

There’s nothing like a bit of Italian driving to wake you up after nine and a half hours of travelling. I swear traffic lights are just used as road side decoration in that country. But we all survived, all 11 of us, and made it to Monte Compatri ready to start a week at the JéMBE Festival of international theatre and education…

Monte Compatri, which is just outside of Rome, is a small town built almost entirely on a hill.

Advantage: rather incredible views of Rome. Disadvantage: even walking to the ice cream shop was like a fully-fledged gym workout (which, due to the slightly alarming amount of ice cream we must have eaten, was probably a good thing.) Mountain climbing aside, the town itself was lined with cobbled streets, fountains, and yellow houses adorned with shutters, lizards, and greenery. Not a bad place to be spending a week in the sun…

The house we stayed in had two bedrooms; two and a half beds, one shower, one toilet – between ten of us. I think it’s fair to say that boundaries between our group are certainly now a thing of the past.

We were the entertainment for that first night, performing a fire show we’ve been rehearsing for weeks, in the town centre. It was surprisingly well received by the Italian public who out of no-where had a bunch of Scottish misfits spilling kerosene and blaring out bagpipe music in their quaint little square at 9.30pm on a Sunday night. We even ended up in someone’s Facebook live stream – talk about hitting the big time!

Later that night we went to see what would turn out to be one of my favourite parts of the week – a traditional Italian serenade. It felt like half the town was climbing through the narrow streets with hushed voices until we came to a stop outside a tall pale house with two balconies. The unsuspecting maiden inside was about to have her fiancé and his friends sing to her in celebration of their upcoming wedding. The singing began and the crowd fell silent. Eventually she appeared on her balcony and attempted to catch a rose thrown to her by her fiancé. That took a couple of tries and an eventual piggyback but it was all still rather lovely. Soon the crowd joined in whistling and clapping and having fun.

We finished the first day stood on the Belvedere – or ‘beautiful view’. And that it was. The square looks right out over Rome, over the thousands of shimmering lights that could have easily been mistaken for stars that had decided to take up residence on the ground.

Day two. Chased by rabid dogs. Survived. *

The morning started off calmly with croissants, coffee, and fruit juice. Then we trekked down the hill to meet everyone that would be taking part in the festival, play games, and say ciao. We had a group of 12 young people that took part in the stilt workshop we were teaching. Stilts and language barriers are a fun combination. But we didn’t kill anyone so all in all a success.

After lunch we huddled in a shady corner of the park, desperately avoiding the 30 degree heat that would turn us ghostly Scots immediately into scarlet lobsters, and started putting together a routine inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform in the final parade at the end of the week.

* On the subject of the rabid dogs, I partially take responsibility as I feel that had I not been quite so insistent on venturing up a particular street that happened to be their home, they would have perhaps, indeed, left us alone…

The next couple of days of workshops went as planned. Hiding from any direct sunlight, picking up stilt walkers, and repeating “If we shadows have offended” in ever so slightly different tones. We took the stilt walkers a-wandering up to the town and successfully caused a scene. Later on they marched right up to the Belvedere – goodness knows how someone who learnt to walk on stilts 2 days ago manages to walk a mile up a 90 degree hill in the sweltering heat, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we were very impressed.

The day after we taught them two traditional Scottish country dances to perform at the end of the week. They all jumped into it with their best stilt forward and seemed to really enjoy themselves! This was a pleasant contrast to the expectations matching every pupil who is forced to learn them in school. Our Shakespeare routine gradually became more of a performance too and we slowly started to memorise our lines in Italian.

Halfway through the week, we performed our second show – The Blootoon Picaroons! – which is a bouncy pirate show where juggling clubs become bottles of rum, people become pirate ships, and children turn into the Kraken itself when handed water balloons…  The show went  brilliantly, despite a few technical glitches, and it felt great to saunter about in our pirate costumes feeling like we owned the place – right up until the moment where we all got thrown into the fountain and had to climb out chilly and dripping before the audience, but perhaps feeling even more like a pirate… even if it was one who had walked the plank.

We took advantage of the free night after and went in three cars to Lake Albano, a wonderful lake in the top of an extinct volcano, also acting as the view to the Pope’s summer house. As lakes go, this one was quite small which meant that it was actually warm enough to jump into. We spent the next hour splashing about and seeing who could be thrown the furthest. I practiced my doggy paddling.

On the final day of the festival, we did the parade and performances in the afternoon. The stilters did their fantastic Scottish dancing, the clowning workshop made everyone laugh, and we (supposedly the professionals) messed up a juggling routine. Then we climbed up to the Belvedere with about 200 audience members and participants where the puppet and Commedia dell’Arte workshops did their performances overlooking Rome. And then even further up we marched to the Piazza Fanti for the fire, circus, and Shakespeare routines. Everything went brilliantly – even if I did get giggled at for the pronunciation of my Italian lines – and everyone seemed to love our fire routine at the end.

So, festival over, and the next day we ventured into Rome. I’ve done the tourist parts of Rome before, but the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Altare della Patria are the kind of things that are quite incredible no matter how many times you’ve seen them. This time in Rome was different to my last in that we also visited St Peter’s Chapel, which I hadn’t ever seen before. Through the security and past the scary guards who check you’re wearing enough clothes, and through the grand doors of the chapel. The exciting thing was, unlike with the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain which is pasted all over the internet, I had no idea what to expect from the chapel. I think I spent the first ten minutes of the visit staring, mouth wide open and catching flies. It really was quite mesmerising – all the carvings and paintings and caskets. Luckily for us, there was also a service going on so the eerie sounds of the choir and organ echoed throughout the massive building and drifted around the statues. After they had finished, the priests all calmly walked past and through a door as if there was nothing to see here.

That night we had our final get together and ate dinner with everyone that had been involved in making the festival happen. First off there was a lovely pasta dish that we all wolfed down and hoped there was seconds. There was seconds. But it wasn’t pasta. Tripe. It was tripe. Blech. It was quite a change to the north east fish and chips we’re used to. But I put on a brave face and finished the whole plate. Blech.

The night went on, accordions were played, wine was drunk, songs were sung, and new friends were hugged, all in a little stone building decorated with shields, corn, and a hog’s head. It was nothing like what we would call a community centre here, but I think more so than here, it made you feel like part of a community.

In the end, I think the JéMBE Festival was a huge success and I am so grateful to have gone, taken part, performed, made friends, wondered at the views, and met people that I won’t ever forget. I also managed to eat a few more ice creams than would be recommended – but it was glorious – and I can’t wait to go back next year.


Avventure in Italia – Part 2

Back to it. If you ever visit Lake Como, I highly recommend taking advantage of the boat trips that are available all day, every day. For 15 Euros we bought a ticket that gave us unlimited boat travel to seven different places for the day. At 11am we set off from Varenna and made our way across the lake, stopping off and visiting Menaggio, Bellagio, and Lenno. If it weren’t for a slightly late start and getting caught in the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced, we’d have gone to the other places too. It was interesting to see how the towns around the lake varied in terms of tourism, attractions, and the kind of people you found there. Despite them all being only a ten minute boat ride apart, they were all quite different. Menaggio was a lot more residential than Bellagio which was full of adorable little shops and streets, whereas Lenno was quite open and had some fancy gardens and fountains (including the villa where parts of Star Wars and James Bond were filmed!). It was on our trip to Menaggio that I discovered the most amazing ice cream imaginable. It was dark chocolate but was more like frozen fudge cake than ice cream. That became my flavour for the rest of the trip.

One of the highlights of it all was the 2 days we spent in Rome. We were up at 6am to catch a train to Milan, and then three hours on a high speed train the rest of the way. Unfortunately Rome is another one of those places where the train station is miles away from the touristy bits but it was great getting to experience the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city on the walk down. Although we did almost get run over several times. Eventually we reached civilisation and witnessed what was probably the funniest thing we saw on the whole trip: a pigeon with a cake wrapper on its head. Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but believe me, it was funny. (And I conveniently have a clip of it in the video below if you want a giggle!) We emerged into the Piazza Venicia which was full of columns and archways and the Altare della Patria in the background. For those of you who don’t know what that is, (I had to Google the name) it’s basically a giant memorial built with blazing white stone and adorned with columns and stairs and statues of horses and chariots. Armed guards stood around and whistled at you if you tried to sit on the steps. We also visited the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio), – where we posed with statues and embarrassed each other – The Roman Forum (Foro Romano), saw a statue of Romulus, Remus, and the wolf, and wandered down the Via dei Fori Imperiali in the sweltering heat, gawking at the street performers along the way. Eventually we arrived at the other end and found the Colosseum. And oh wow – to put it plainly. We stood before this massive ancient building, full of history and stories, and were completely taken aback by its size and structure and stonework and general amazingness. This is another one of those Milan Cathedral moments when something is just so incredible and well known that words don’t really work anymore. Here’s a picture instead…

We slowly made our way back to the train station, passing the Pantheon, a souvenir shop, the Trevi Fountain, and the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome – Giolitti. We hopped on our train and made our way to Frascatti, and then on to Monte Compatri where we stayed with two wonderful, kind friends for the night. We had homemade carbonara for dinner which turned out to be the best meal we had in Italy.

The next day we made our way back to Fiumelatte after warm hugs and goodbyes. The rest of the trip was mainly spent paddling in the lake, walking up mountains, and eating ice cream and pizza. You get how that’s done so I’ll stop here. Thank you for sticking with me this far if you are indeed still reading the second part of this rather long set of posts. Anyway, my dear fellows, if you ever get the chance, go to Italy, any part of it. Just experience the culture, the food, the language, and the amazing people. I came back with a love for espressos and memories I will never forget.

Finally, here is a video I made with some of the footage I got while I wasn’t too busy staring in amazement or eating ice cream. It’s a little shaky but it still gives you a bit of an idea of what we got up to…

Avventure in Italia – Part 1

“Benvenuti a bordo di questo volo Easyjet,” my ears pricked up at the sound of the cabin tannoy. I’m going to Italy… and I hadn’t even realised it until now!

This also wasn’t the best moment to pick to get excited – having been squeezed into a sardine can that was now taxiing along the runway at however many miles an hour, and will soon be thousands of feet above any ground that would be suitable for an excited teenager to be jumping up and down on.

Excitement contained, we landed about two hours later. I stepped out of the plane and was immediately hit with that longed for warm European air. It has the same familiarity as the very British smell of rain on dry tarmac. But this one makes me think of adventure and discovering new things – not sitting inside sipping tea.

We made our way through Milan Malpensa and reached the other end where we were met by a friendly taxi driver holding a sign with our name on it (that was quite cool…) He didn’t speak much English but we were able to communicate through enthusiastic giggles. He drove us to our hotel, and for a terrifying moment I forgot they drive on the opposite side of the road. We arrived at the hotel and were met with locked gates and dark windows. It looked a little like those hotels in horror movies where everyone is gradually picked off one by one, leaving the last person to shut themselves in the cupboard until morning. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we got inside. We had two rooms, and the bed in one of them was about 5 times the size of me. No murderers in the cupboards. And the night was cold and sounded of crickets. Sleep took its time as we waited for morning to arrive and the next leg of the adventure to begin.

We woke at what felt like the crack of doom and hurriedly packed away our pyjamas and made our way downstairs to catch the shuttle bus. We arrived back at the airport and spent a lot of time being lost. Much confusion, a helpful Italian lady, and an hour’s bus ride later, we arrived in Milan and started heading what we thought was towards the cathedral. After half an hour walking down the same street we thought we must be close. Fools! Over the next 10 days we would learn that in Italy, the exciting things are almost always miles and miles away from the convenient train stations.

The first place we found that was worth a wander off the route to the cathedral was a couple of rather quintessentially Italian streets, full of greenery and lovely buildings and the occasional old bicycle. It turned out that this was also where I would feel the most out of place in my whole life. As I plodded along with my 20 ton back pack and a very sweaty t shirt that almost certainly didn’t go with my shorts, I realised that everyone around me was impeccably dressed from head to toe. Each shop door was guarded by a man in a suit who presumably wouldn’t let you in if you looked like you’d have to ask how much something cost. We were surrounded by designer shops and with no confidence to go inside anywhere, we stared in astonishment at the hats and watches in the windows that would set you back sums of money that most people (including us) could only dream of.

Finally we found il Duomo di Milano – it sort of gets to a point when you can’t miss it. The meticulously carved 14th century stonework (although only completed in 1965) towers over the more recent buildings in the city, completely taking centre stage with its amazing detail and sheer amount of carvings, statues, and patterns. The cathedral is just so huge and spectacular, it’s actually quite hard to describe in writing. This was the second time I had seen it, and still I stared open mouthed and wide eyed. We paid nine Euros to climb the 254 stairs to the roof where we could gaze over the city and marvel at the incredible architecture from a new angle. The sun shone and bounced off the white marble floors so brightly I had to spend a lot of time with my eyes closed.

We arrived at Varenna-Esino Station, Lake Como in the afternoon; there we were met by Franco. He was a slightly odd chap but a lot of that possibly came from the fact we couldn’t communicate very well with each other, and he had just realised he was about to rent out his beloved lake side house to 5 bouncy teenagers. “Very young,” was the first, and possibly the last thing he said to us. He drove us (frighteningly quickly) to what would be our home for the next 10 days.

Our house was in Fiumelatte – meaning milky river – home of the river of the same name. It got its name from the fact the water rushes down the mountain so fast it appears a milky white colour. The river is so fast because it’s so short (roughly 250m!) – The shortest river in Italy.

Fiumelatte itself was a beautiful little town nestled at the bottom of the mountains, full of tall quirky buildings of all different colours. With only one restaurant, and a couple of little fresh bread and fruit shops, it’s a relatively quiet place and perfect for being able to step out your front door and straight into the lake with only a couple of fish and friendly ducks and coots to share the water with. No matter where you were you could look out across the shimmering lake at the neighbouring towns and villages, or at the mountains that guard the water in every direction.

The closest town to us was a one and a half mile walk either back along the road path or through the mountains. On our first trip to Varenna, we took the mountain path and nearly stepped on a snake. Which was rather exciting given that tends to be an impossible thing to do here in Scotland. We explored little cobbled streets, full of greens, and yellows, and reds. The sun seemed to make every colour even more intense than normal and the lake look as if it was full of thousands of little stars reflecting in the light. In the centre, down at the water’s edge, there were bars and restaurants, ice cream shops and places full of handmade little trinkets. Of course, we made a beeline for one of the ice cream shops and bought our first ice cream of the trip – mango and passion fruit. Yuuuum.

That night, we had still failed to find a supermarket so walked back to Varenna and had pizza at what was to become our favourite restaurant: Bar il Molo. The friendly, helpful staff spoke perfect English and were really interested to know where we were from and how long we’d be staying. If anyone plans to visit Varenna in the near future, I recommend getting a table next to the lake at Bar il Molo and spending the evening with one of their pizzas.

One of the things I now miss most about Italy was the wildlife. Okay, so we didn’t see any bears or wolves, but what we did see still felt excitingly unusual compared to the hundreds of seagulls and sheep in the north east. There were loads of fish of all different types and sizes swimming about in the lake. Sometimes they’d come right up to the shore where our house was. Along with the ducks, bats, and coots there was also the occasional huge bird of prey including black kites and eagles. Then there was the snake incident. But my favourite was the Italian Wall Lizard, or Run Lizard in some places. The funny scaly little critters were covered in bright colours and patterns. They would often come and sit next to me on the rock when I was down at the beach and sit so still it would take me a while to realise they weren’t part of the rock. I never did catch one. They could run faster than I could blink. But they were fascinating to watch and were generally good at posing for photos. Finally, one of the most mesmerising things I saw in Italy, were fireflies. I had never seen them before and to start I had no idea what I was looking at. There was one night we went for a walk up the mountain in the pitch darkness (sounds intelligent doesn’t it) and on the way back we stopped where the railway tracks meet the path. We stared down the tunnel of black in sheer wonder. Thousands of fireflies were dancing and flickering like a galaxy of stars for as far as we could see…

However, this post is becoming a little long, so check back tomorrow for part two!